By Katherine O’Brien
At a 2009 breast cancer seminar, I met two Chicago-area MBCN volunteers: Joani Gudeman and Shirley Mertz. I had never met another person with metastatic breast cancer. Joani and Shirley made me feel less alone. Their activism inspired me.
The meeting was held in a hotel ballroom on a Sunday morning. There were several hundred people in attendance and most were casually dressed. Shirley, however, was professionally attired in a perfectly tailored suit. Who would get dressed up on the weekend? Certainly not me. But there was Shirley, dressed for success. Although she was not part of the medical panel fielding questions, Shirley was summoned to the stage to read a proclamation about October 13, National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day.
In 2008, Shirley and her fellow volunteer, the late Susan Davis, launched MBCN’s drive to formally establish October 13 as National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. In October 2009, they succeeded: The Senate and House each unanimously passed a resolution to support that designation.
I remember watching Shirley striding purposefully to the stage. She absolutely belonged up there–she commanded attention and respect. Almost a year later, I met Shirley again in Indianapolis at MBCN’s 2010 Annual Conference on Metastatic Breast Cancer. Again, I was struck by Shirley’s leadership–she moderated several sessions. As I got to know her a little bit better, I saw flashes of Shirley’s humor–and that made me like her even more. She’s serious in her advocacy efforts, but she enjoys a good joke and will often tell one on herself.
In 2011 and 2012 as I did more volunteer work with MBCN, I learned that Shirley, a former high school principal from northwest suburban Chicago, also earned a law degree. I don’t think Shirley divulged this information–she did share, however, that she is a proud graduate of the National Breast Cancer Coalition’s (NBCC) Project Lead, a science training program for activists. Shirley became a consumer reviewer for the DOD Breast Cancer Research Program and advocate for national health care reform. In 2008, she personally asked Senator Evan Bayh to sponsor a Senate Resolution for MBC Awareness Day and then co-chaired the team that traveled to Washington to lobby for Congressional passage. In 2011, she was honored as a Champions of Change in breast cancer at the White House.
Shirley was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2003, twelve years after being treated for DCIS. Like me, she wanted to meet other people dealing with a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer. She was appalled to learn how few resources existed and determined to make a difference. “My passion is being a voice for metastatic breast cancer patients,” Shirley told me. “I have not hesitated to share my experiences with this disease because I want to motivate others to speak up. Joining together with a focused message, metastatic breast cancer patients can improve outcomes in the clinic.”
Shirley’s own story illustrates some key messages for people with metastatic breast cancer. “Allow yourself time to cry, then put on steel armor and learn to take charge of your care,” Shirley told a University of Chicago interviewer. ” You must be your own advocate.”
After her recurrence, Shirley’s former oncologist based her treatment on the biological characteristics of the 2003 tumor. But it was clear the treatment was failing. Shirley lobbied for a new biopsy–and ultimately got one, after pursuing a second opinion. The biopsy revealed the pathology of Shirley’s cancer had changed–it wasn’t the same subtype as her original diagnosis. “A great oncologist will never be offended if you ask for a second opinion,” she says. By sharing her story, Shirley has helped untold people.
Earlier this year, MBCN named Shirley as its president. In addition to targeting underserved areas of the US, she’s committed to raising the group’s profile with metastatic researchers. “If scientists could meet us and personally hear our needs, that would be a powerful message,” she says. “With the board’s help and enthusiasm, we will take our commitment to patients to another level.”
You go, Shirley!
Katherine O’Brien is MBCN’s Secretary and Public Relations Chair